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Helping Black Soldiers Succeed Through Mentorship Pt. 1: The Challenge

At the time of this writing, author Thomas Bishop was pursuing Harvard Kennedy School’s Mid-Career MPA. He hails from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and currently resides in Greenbelt, Maryland. His experience includes 18 years of military service (both Reserves and Active Duty) along with six years of experience as the associate research director for a non-profit research organization. During his time at Harvard Thomas started the Anti-Racism Policy Journal, from where the tough topics in this article were birthed.

African Americans face systemic hurdles in the military. The New York Times reported that 70 years after integration, the “military’s upper echelons remain the domain of white men.” In fact, in the Army, African American soldiers make up about 23 percent of enlisted personnel but less than six percent of senior military positions. This means that while the Army is overrepresented with enlisted Soldiers doing the day-to-day work of defending the country, many of those Soldiers never get the opportunity to see and work with leaders who look like them in senior positions (notwithstanding the fact that we now have an African American Secretary of Defense). This issue leads to deeper systemic issues in the military.

The Problem Is Deeper Than Senior Officer Promotions

In nearly all areas, African Americans face systemic inequality. African American Soldiers are disciplined and released from duty at a much higher rate than their white counterparts. A study conducted by Protect Our Defenders found that in every year of data obtained from the Department of Defense on UCMJ action that “black service members were substantially more likely than white service members to face military justice or disciplinary action.” These disciplinary actions led to African American soldiers facing military court-martials at twice the rate of white soldiers. These disparities occur at the most prestigious military academies as well. While African American soldiers make up only six percent of the cadet population at the Virginia Military Institute, they are 46 percent of soldiers expelled from the school. At nearly every level from cadet to senior promotions, African Americans are disproportionately facing negative outcomes.

Two studies detailed “Why Black Officers Fail” and “Why Black Officers Still Fail” by surveying senior Army officers at the Army War College in 1999 and 2010. These studies confirmed the systemic issues that lead to African Americans leaving the military, being released, and failing to promote to senior officer ranks. They made four recommendations to increase success for African American officers in the Army:

  • Minimize the influence of the “good old boy network” to get young African American Officers quality assignments.

  • Increase the quality of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) cadre by increasing the status of ROTC assignments.

  • Provide quality mentoring for young African American Officers.

  • Educate Officers and senior leaders in cultural awareness.

Ending the “Good Old Boy Network”

The Army is currently working to implement strategies to end the “good old boy network.” In 2020 the Army announced it would end the use of DA Photos and demographic data in promotion and command boards. They are also updating the Army People Strategy to include a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Annex to foster a culture of inclusion in the service. But some argue that these plans may fail to change the culture of the military in a way that will promote diversity. More is needed.

Increasing the quality of ROTC cadre

Increasing the quality of ROTC cadre by increasing the status of ROTC assignments also faces an uphill battle. First, this strategy must be clear, the quality of ROTC cadre must be increased, but specifically at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) where many African American officers commission from. How do you increase the status of this assignment when compared to those at the US Military Academy? These HBCUs face deeper problems that ROTC cadre must face. They must contend with schools facing accreditation issues, lack of funding and facilities (compared to larger schools and the US Military Academy), and finally, their locations also make it difficult to increase the status of the assignment. For senior officers who care about diversity, increasing their status cannot be the main goal in accepting these assignments because that goal is destined to fail. If the military wanted to increase the quality of ROTC cadre, they would need to make ROTC assignment a prerequisite for most prominent command positions and promotions.

Increasing cultural awareness

Educating officers and senior leaders in cultural awareness has been an ongoing goal. Yearly, all Army soldiers are required to complete cultural awareness and Equal Opportunity training. For decades, many senior leaders have attended the mandatory programs and every unit in the Army is required to have unit-level Equal Opportunity leaders who analyze the command climate and advise the commander on equal opportunity issues in the unit. But the promotion data shows no ostensible increase in senior military promotions.


The most important recommendation “Why Black Officers Fail” offered was the need for providing quality mentorship to soldiers of color. This mentorship counterbalances the “good old boy network” by creating new relationships with soldiers of color and leaders they may have never had access to. It also breaks the cycle of patronage between white privileged officers and those officers who have never had those experiences (military academy, Air Borne/Air Assault/ Ranger School/and others). This mentorship bridges the gaps needed in our ROTC programs by building relationships with young officers throughout their careers and helping them develop into successful senior leaders. Finally, mentorship relationships do more for cultural awareness and equal opportunity than education programs ever could.

The next article in this series will look at implementation of a few methods to face this problem.

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